CEF Spotlight

The Sustainable Development Goals: Doing Business a World of Good

By James McDonald, Director, Global Citizenship and Sophie Beckham, Global Forest Stewardship and Sustainability Manager at International Paper

If you’re wondering who is trying to make the world a better place, look no further than the United Nations. Their 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are underpinned by 169 targets that set global priorities for sustainable development through 2030. Their vision for a greener, more sustainable global environment is a call to self-examination and proactive responsibility that deserves a thoughtful response.

In the last year, the SDGs have been recognized by the business community as key driver of innovation, creativity, and a common framework for collaboration. Companies are examining their relationship to sustainability, assessing their global impact, and now several are publically disclosing their contributions to the targets set out in the SDGs. Corporate action is critical to the success of the SDGs, and a growing number of companies understand that the global goals provide a pathway to new business opportunities. At International Paper, a few key questions emerged when evaluating our global citizenship strategy through the lens of the SDGs:

  • How do the UN SDGs inform and align with our global citizenship strategy?
  • What have we learned from working with the SDGs?
  • Why do we believe the SDGs will continue to be important to business?

These are questions that require honest, reflective and pragmatic answers.


International Paper is one of the world’s leading producers of fiber-based packaging, pulp and paper. We transform renewable resources into products people depend on every day, and we love making the world a better place. Our global team is all about:

  • Strengthening our people and the communities where we live and work
  • Using resources responsibly and efficiently
  • Ensuring our businesses are safe, successful and sustainable for generations to come

In the last 18 months, our commitment to sustainability has shifted from “something we do” to “how we operate every day.” Anchoring this shift is our global citizenship strategy, which builds on our vision to be among the most successful, sustainable and responsible companies in the world. We’re counting on our new sustainability framework to guide us as we invest in people and improve the planet. We’ve come this far by asking questions like:

  • What problems are we trying to solve?
  • Are we addressing the right issues?
  • Where can we have the most impact?
  • Are we doing enough?

To find the answers, we looked at past materiality surveys and asked key stakeholders for input, while also drawing from our existing sustainability goals. With a draft strategy in hand, we mapped our work against the SDGs to better understand how our focus areas align with global priorities. As a next step, we closely examined the targets within each SDG to ensure we were positioned to directly contribute to our prioritized goals in a measurable way.


Tools for the Future. We found that not all the SDGs were relevant for our company today; however, we understand this may change over time, so we plan to check and adjust our targets on an ongoing basis. The beauty of the SDGs lies in their utility as tools; they drive sustainable innovation, and provide a strategic framework for delivering a globally relevant agenda.

Uncovering our Contributions. The SDGs are not only a resource for the future. Mapping our global citizenship strategy against the SDGs was an important exercise for the company; it helped us to better understand how our strategy aligns with the global goals. Through this exercise, we found that our core business and philanthropic efforts are directly contributing to goals 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 13, 15, and 17. We plan to publically report our progress against the goals in our 2016 reporting channels.

Challenges, Solutions and Keeping Good Company. Engaging in external groups that address challenges within your industry can help unlock innovative solutions when unforeseen complexities emerge. For example, as part of our commitment to forests that support our operations, International Paper joined the WBCSD Forest Solutions Group, enabling us to develop sector-specific KPIs to measure our performance against the SDGs. In addition, ad hoc partnerships and collaborations can help accelerate progress against the SDGs and inspire bold action.


A Call to Action. The SDGs enable corporations to shift away from reactive measures centered on “doing less bad” to proactive measures that boost positive impact for society and the environment. By using these global goals as motivators, we can reduce our environmental footprint while also investing in our handprint — that is, the good we leave behind. Finally, corporate introspection and systems thinking in light of the SDGs will help businesses translate goals into action as they ask questions like: What are our business impacts and dependencies on natural resources? How do we promote the long-term sustainability of natural capital?

A Call to Collaboration. 

Working with cross-sector partners with the right expertise can develop joint solutions. For International Paper, this means suppliers, environmental non-profits, other special interest groups and regulators.

Corporations have a tremendous opportunity to drive innovation for social and environmental benefits, and will likely need to continue this work to maintain credibility with key stakeholders, including customers who are increasingly shaping consumption based on new expectations around corporate behavior.

To remain viable, International Paper also needs to attract talent, which means we need to build trust with future employees by showing we can deliver on complex global issues that are increasingly important.

There are a number of ways for businesses to have a positive social impact and benefit from opportunities arising through the SDGs. Contributing to the SDGs is not only a responsibility, but also a business opportunity.

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